Doing right and doing good is not the same

Doing right and doing good is not the same

In the second half of the 19th century, the largest ships were predominantly ferries.  These ferries moved huge numbers of people from one place to another within close proximity to the shore. Logically, the regulations that outlined the responsibilities of the ship owners were based on how ships were used at that time— as ferries.

By the time the Titanic was ready in 1912, these regulations had not yet been updated to reflect this new breed of ocean-going vessels. The Titanic carried as many lifeboats as was required by the law, which was sixteen.  However, the problem was that the Titanic was four times larger than the largest legal classification of ships during those days. The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the Titanic’s owner, just adhered to the outdated regulation (in fact, they added four more inflatable rafts…). 

Unfortunately, as we all know, on April 14, 1912, just four days after leaving port on its maiden voyage, the Titanic struck an iceberg far from any shoreline. There were not enough lifeboats for everyone and more than 1500 of the 2224 passengers and crew on board died as a result.  Imagine: a ship four times bigger than the largest classification carried only a quarter of the lifeboats that was actually needed. The tragic part of the story is that there was space for extra lifeboats onboard the Titanic.  In fact, additional space was added aboard the deck of the Titanic in expectation of a “lifeboats for all” requirement. But lifeboats were expensive, they required maintenance and they could affect a ship’s stability.  So the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company decided not to add the lifeboats until the regulation said they had to.   Was this correct behaviour?  Oh yes, because the company was in full compliance with the applicable rules.  At the same time, however, the whole shipping industry lobbied against the change in regulations in the early twentieth century, arguing that having so many lifeboats sitting visibly on the decks would hurt business.  And why? Because people would think their vessels were unsafe... 

History repeated itself in the 1950s.  Car manufacturers used the same arguments at a moment when seat belt requirements were being considered.  They feared that the existence of a seat belt would lead people to think their cars were unsafe.  And sadly enough, history repeats itself with the Apples and Googles of this world who argument against paying taxes because their actual tax liability would hurt their ability to compete.  Are their actions and their thinking legal?  Maybe.  Is it ethical?  No, it’s not. 

Question to the readers of this article: what is the ethical compass of your company?  What is your ethical compass?  Personally,  I believe you can only do right by doing good. And that's not always easy.


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